In 10 Indian Champions Who are Fighting to Save the Planet, stories of pragmatism amid climate change

The people featured in the book recognise the natural world has irreversibly changed and are adapting to that new reality by drawing attention to climate change in novel ways.

Urvashi Bahuguna August 28, 2020 13:00:23 IST
In 10 Indian Champions Who are Fighting to Save the Planet, stories of pragmatism amid climate change

In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.

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Pakke Tiger Reserve, and the adjoining reserve forest area, in Arunachal Pradesh is home to four of the nine kinds of hornbills found in India – the Great Hornbill, the Wreathed Hornbill, the Oriental Pied Hornbill and the Rufous-necked Hornbill. The forest’s future is tied up with that of the hornbills who play an invaluable role in the continued survival of the ecosystem by dispersing up to 4000 seeds a day. Aparajita Dutta is part of a research team that works in conjunction with the local Nyishi community to protect the hornbills’ vulnerable nesting sites
in the trees found in the forest. The same tree cavities are visited year after year by these birds. Between uses, these hollows are monitored for damage and repaired by researchers and trained members of the community. The entrance to the cavity is widened or blocked, depending on whether it has shrunk or expanded over time, and suitable perches installed, to ensure optimal conditions for the next cycle.

Dutta’s fascinating efforts are one of 10 stories covered in Bijal Vachharajani and Radha Rangarajan’s 10 Indian Champions Who are Fighting to Save the Planet. Based on extensive interviews with the subjects, Vachharajani and Rangarajan have written about scientists, rag-pickers-turned-musicians, researchers, activists, journalists, and artists working on issues as varied as coral reef conservation and revival, effective waste management, climate justice, government accountability and improved tracking methods for endangered species, protection of natural water bodies and making urgent environmental information accessible and interesting to the general public.

Though perhaps these names will be familiar to those working in the field, I learned of several of them for the first time in these pages. Starting out with the intent to write about the contributions of environmental stalwarts like Salim Ali, M Krishnan and Zafar Futehally, the authors eventually decided to focus on lesser-known individuals working in the field today – often doing smaller scale work that is nonetheless crucial, such as Laxmi Kamble of Dharavi Rocks who upcycles discarded plastic items into musical instruments to draw
attention to consumption, the unequal social burden of waste management and the potential within recycling.

The book puts forward an endearing pragmatism that is a compelling substitute for the helplessness many of us feel when it comes to the climate crisis. These aren’t people seeking to save the planet or turn back time. They recognise the natural world has irreversibly changed and are adapting to that new reality by drawing attention to it through journalism, open letters to the government and visual storytelling. Others are closely recording the changes. Some are working to safeguard what remains and limit the consequences of human consumption and development, and importantly, others are working towards better working conditions for professions that play a critical role in maintaining environmental balance but still do not command respect, fair contracts or a liveable wage.

Each chapter follows a particular individual and ends with a little about other people working in similar areas and a host of suggestions for what someone looking to get involved can do. This can be as basic as educating one’s self about misunderstood creatures such as reptiles or learning about the stupendous amount of water that goes into growing the specific food one eats. Rohan Arthur, who studies coral reef erosion amongst other things, asks that parents teach their children to swim and to become acquainted with water bodies. One can also note one’s bird and wildlife sightings on inaturalist.org to help researchers or adopt a hornbill nest to support conservation efforts in Arunachal Pradesh.

The collection doesn’t claim to be comprehensive or representative of such efforts in India, and it isn’t. But what it does offer is a curiosity about what drives these individuals, what enables them to keep going in the face of inconsistent results and what the joyous moments of their work may look like. The text is also interested in the inequitable ways in which environmental problems affect different sections of society as well as the unfair burden placed upon farmers to grow affordable food without adequate returns and on rag-pickers to sort through hazardous, unclean and unsegregated waste. Through the work of Kavitha Kuruganti who works with farmers, the book also sheds light on what being a woman in rural India, particularly a lower-caste woman, can mean for access to water for drinking, irrigation and sanitation. Further, the book is replete with examples of women who are influencing a field, which like any other, is dominated by men.

Many of these stories are undergirded by a love for the unassuming beauty they’ve discovered deep in a forest or out on a secluded island or even in a dumpster circled by Greater Adjutants. But there is also a desire to acknowledge and mitigate the impact of environmental problems on those they disproportionately impact. Though the book is aimed at younger readers, I found myself enjoying these glimpses into green careers – challenging in a hundred ways but rewarding nonetheless.

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